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Indo-Pacific

A tale of two covers: Japan's message on Taiwan draws US notice

Defense white paper swaps out placid pink landscape for spirited samurai

​​​​​​​That was then, this is now: The 2020 and 2021 editions of Japan's defense white paper present strikingly different cover images.

NEW YORK -- Gone are the plum flowers and image of Mount Fuji on a sedate pink background of last year. A fully armored samurai warrior mounted on a charging steed is emblazoned on the cover of Japan's defense white paper this year, and people are taking notice of the shift in direction.

The annual "Defense of Japan" white paper is compiled by a team of six under the Ministry of Defense. Four of this year's staffers were women in their 30s, including the team leader. Members reportedly pushed for the samurai on the cover -- partly to gauge interest among the young, but also as a message to the world that Japan is ready to defend itself.

The change in Tokyo's public position is "astonishing," according to Japan expert and RAND Corp. senior political scientist Jeffrey Hornung.

The shift has been noticed in Washington. While analysts are divided on the best path forward for Japan, there is a broad understanding that its public messaging is deliberate and a departure from years past.

Analysts highlight several new elements as notable. For the first time, the paper links Taiwan directly to the security of Japan. "Stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan's security and the stability of the international community," it says. "Therefore, it is necessary that we pay close attention to the situation with a sense of crisis more than ever before."

The document also gives more real estate to the space, cyber and electromagnetic domains and highlights the importance of climate change, aligning itself with the priorities of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Murasame-class destroyer Ikazuchi, left, the USNS John Ericsson fleet replenishment oiler and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier steam ahead while conducting a replenishment at sea in the Philippine Sea in August 2020. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

"What we see new now with comments by these officials is the public tying together of Taiwan and Japan's security," Hornung said. This was often a topic of discussion in private conversations with Japanese officials but never acknowledged in public, he said.

"Japan's new white paper is likely to be well received by U.S. policymakers who seek to work more closely with Japan to contribute to regional peace and security, including stability in the Taiwan Strait," said Bonny Lin, the new director of the China Power Project and senior fellow for Asian security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

"I would also add that China is closely observing what is happening and becoming alarmed," Lin said. She pointed to a video circulating in China of how Beijing may use nuclear weapons against Japan and said it is "a sign that China is concerned that there is a fundamental shift happening in Japan with regard to its Taiwan policy."

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at RAND, said: "We're seeing a more public messaging campaign from Tokyo that Japan, at a minimum, has concerns about what is going on in the strait because it negatively impacts Japanese security, and on the high end that Tokyo might even join the U.S. to defend Taiwan were the island ever attacked."

The white paper comes just weeks after Japan's No. 2 leader, Taro Aso, who serves as deputy prime minister and finance minister, said in a speech that if China invades Taiwan, Tokyo may interpret the move as a "threat to Japan's survival" and deploy the Self-Defense Forces to defend Taiwan alongside the U.S.

Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said earlier in July: "If a major incident happened [in Taiwan], it would not be strange at all if it touches on a situation threatening survival. If that is the case, Japan and the U.S. must defend Taiwan together." (Photo courtesy of Japan's Ministry of Finance)

Yasuhide Nakayama, Japan's state minister for defense, told the Hudson Institute in June that "we have to protect Taiwan as a democratic country" and publicly questioned whether the "One China" policy the U.S. and Japan have followed for decades was still worth maintaining.

RAND's Grossman said: "I do not expect this trend to reverse so long as Beijing continues ramping up diplomatic, economic and particularly military pressure against Taiwan. The fact that Tokyo, which normally avoids airing grievances, feels compelled to send such strong messages to Beijing is really quite an indictment of China's bad behavior in the strait."

The comments by Aso and Nakayama follow an April summit statement in which U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga underscored "the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait" -- the first reference to Taiwan in a U.S.-Japan leaders' statement since 1969.

In May, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told Nikkei in an interview that Japan must increase its defense capabilities "at a radically different pace than in the past" and that annual defense spending cannot be bound by the long-standing ceiling of 1% of gross domestic product.

"When you look at the entirety of comments by Kishi, by Nakayama, by Aso, this is not stopping," Hornung said. "These are not gaffes. These are intentional. It is Japan's public policy position now."

But Michael Swaine, director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute, warned that while the wording regarding Taiwan in the white paper itself is not that alarming, the context is.

"The movement towards defining Taiwan as an essential strategic location for Japan that implies that an independent Taiwan or Taiwan that remains separate from the mainland, is really important for Japan's national security is very dangerous," he said.

Swaine said it is important to remember that the Biden administration has not changed its stance on the "One China" policy, which the U.S. has maintained since 1979.

Under the policy, Washington "acknowledges the Chinese position" that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The U.S. recognizes the government of the People's Republic of China as the "sole legal government of China" but does not explicitly recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.

"If you look at the statements that are made by some U.S. defense officials and military officers about China being prepared to attack Taiwan, and possibly this occurring soon, there's a greater need for message control within the Biden administration to make it very clear that not only does it say that it supports 'One China' but it needs to actually show that it supports the idea of the 'One China' policy," Swaine said.

Swaine said a better path for Japan would be to exercise "middle-power diplomacy," aligning more closely with such countries as South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia "to act more as a stabilizer, a restrainer in the U.S.-China relationship."

He called the tensions between Japan and South Korea over historical issues "unfortunate" and said that "both countries really need to reassess their situation for the larger strategic reasons."

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